Regional Reviews: New Jersey
George Eliot Vividly Portrayed in Shakespeare Theatre
We first see Mary Anne as she is being examined by the influential Dr. George Combe, a phrenologist who wants to make a cast of her brain. Rather insultingly, Combe tells her that she has a "male sized" brain. Mary Ann becomes disturbed and leaves before Combe can proceed. (Actually, Eliot was a devotee of phrenology, and had her head cast by another prominent phrenologist.)
The time is the 1850s. Although she has had only a limited formal education and did not attend college, thirty-four-year-old Mary Anne is in London where she is at work as an editor redesigning a prestigious literary journal. Mary Anne believes that she and the famed philosopher Herbert Spencer, with whom she has been attending theatre and concerts, have embarked on a serious relationship. However, when she professes her feelings to Spencer, he flees from her, stating that they must not go out together frequently in order to dispel rumors that they are "serious." Aware that she is considered to be physically unattractive, Mary Anne is devastated.
Immediately thereafter, Mary Anne bravely embarks on a relationship with the true love of her life, George Henry Lewes. Lewes, a philosopher, science writer, and literary and theatre critic, is involved in a painful open marriage. Because of legal complications, George can never divorce his wife with whom he has seven children, only three of whom he had actually fathered. True soul mates, Mary Anne and George quickly embark on an affair, and begin living together as husband and wife despite the fact that they can never marry. The enormous degree of scandal involved is is conveyed by Mary Anne's disapproving friend Barbara who is quite a free soul herself. She warns Mary Anne that George's wife and children will inherit his money and she will be regarded as a "fallen woman."
Mary Anne writes a novel and it is a realistic one about lower class provincial people. She has listened to their conversations, and and she wants to give them a voice. In order that it be taken seriously, she decides to assume the pen name George Eliot. The devoted George acts as intermediary between Mary Anne and her publisher who is unaware that George Eliot is a woman.
While in the midst of writing her novels, Mary Anne will reveal herself to the word as being George Eliot; and she and her George will ever more openly defy convention as they thrive in their relationship. It is quite astounding to realize how unconventional and strong they had to be in order to openly maintain what was a loyal, loving relationship. Just how well did Eliot cope with the pressures which her life choices brought upon her? How did the revelation that she was George Eliot affect her career as a writer?
Cathy Tempelsman reveals all this and much more in a play that gives us a rich sense of Victorian England. Initially, A Most Dangerous Woman is a bit overwritten and static because Tempelsman includes more situations than are needed to set the table for the balance of the play. However, as the play progresses, our emotional involvement and interest grows exponentially, as does the tempo of the storytelling. The second act moves along at a fast, contemporary tempo while continuing to transport us back in time.
Aedin Moloney has to run a full gamut of emotions as George Eliot. Without taking a false step, for most of the play's length, Moloney convincingly reveals a growing underlying strength which sustains her Eliot even during times of emotional turbulence. Ames Adamson brings a crusty enthusiasm to George Lewes which conveys his love for Eliot without a trace of sentimentality.
The imposing Rob Krakovski in his principal role as Mary Anne's abusive and moralistic brother Isaac is as menacing and hateful a villain as Tempelsman has written. Deanne Lorette is particularly engaging as Eliot's feminist friend, Barbara Bodichon.
Using a movable door, a large single arch which resembles a false proscenium, a double arch (which looks like a silhouette toward the rear of the stage) and a variety of stage furniture, scenic designer Nicholas Dorr shows that a spare set can be perfectly evocative and playable.
A Most Dangerous Woman is a solidly entertaining, erudite play which should prove most popular among theatergoers throughout the country.
A Most Dangerous Woman is Cathy Tempelsman's first full length play. It has had readings at New York's DR2 Theatre (directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.) and Primary Stages, New Jersey's Luna Stage (New Jersey) and England's Nuneaton Town Hall. There was a workshop at Dallas, Texas' Echo Theatre. The current STNJ production is its world premiere.
A Most Dangerous Woman continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday 7:30 PM/ Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 PM) through October 12, 2013 at the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online: www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
A Most Dangerous Woman by Cathy Tempelsman; directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.